The Northern Way

Popular Tales From the Norse


This general affinity established, we proceed to narrow our subject to its proper limits, and to confine it to the consideration, first, of Popular Tales in general, and, secondly, of those Norse Tales in particular, which form the bulk of this volume.

In the first place, then, the fact which we remarked on setting out, that the groundwork or plot of many of

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these tales is common to all the nations of Europe, is more important, and of greater scientific interest, than might at first appear. They form, in fact, another link in the chain of evidence of a common origin between the East and West, and even the obstinate adherents of the old classical theory, according to which all resemblances were set down to sheer copying from Greek or Latin patterns, are now forced to confess not only that there was no such wholesale copying at all, but that, in many cases, the despised vernacular tongues have preserved the common traditions far more faithfully than the writers of Greece and Rome, The sooner in short that this theory of copying, which some even besides the classicists have maintained, is abandoned, the better, not only for the truth but for the literary reputation of those who put it forth. No one can, of course, imagine that during that long succession of ages when this mighty wedge of Aryan migration was driving its way through that prehistoric race, that nameless nationality, the traces of which we everywhere find underlying the intruders in their monuments and implements of bone and stone--a race akin, in all probability, to the Mongolian family, and whose miserable remnants we see pushed aside, and huddled up in the holes and corners of Europe, as Lapps, and Finns, and Basques--no one, we say, can suppose for a moment, that in that long process of contact and absorption, some traditions of either race should not have been caught up and adopted by the other. We know it to be a fact with regard to their language, from the evidence of philology, which cannot lie; and the witness borne by such a word as the Gothic Atta for father, where a Mongolian has been

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adopted in preference to an Aryan word, is irresistible on this point; but that, apart from such natural assimilation, all the thousand shades of resemblance and affinity which gleam and flicker through the whole body of popular tradition in the Aryan race, as the Aurora plays and flashes in countless rays athwart the Northern heaven, should be the result of mere servile copying of one tribe's traditions by another, is a supposition as absurd as that of those good country-folk, who, when they see an Aurora, fancy it must be a great fire, the work of some incendiary, and send off the parish engine to put it out. No! when we find in such a story as "The Master Thief" traits which are to be found in the Sanscrit Hitopadesa, 1 and which

1. "A Brahmin, who had vowed a sacrifice, went to the market to buy a goat. Three thieves saw him, and wanted to get hold of the goat. They stationed themselves at intervals on the high-road. When the Brahmin, who carried the goat on his back, approached the first thief, the thief said, 'Brahmin, why do you carry a dog on your back?' The Brahmin replied: 'It is not a dog, it is a goat.' A little while after, he was accosted by the second thief, who said, 'Brahmin, why do you carry a dog on your back?' The Brahmin felt perplexed, put the goat down, examined it, and walked on. Soon after he was stopped by the third thief, who said, 'Brahmin, why do you carry a dog on your back?' Then the Brahmin was frightened, threw down the goat, and walked home to perform his ablutions for having touched an unclean animal. The thieves took the goat and ate it." See the notice of the Norse Tales in the Saturday Review, January 15th. In Max Müller's translation of the Hitopadesa, the story has a different ending. See also Le Piacevoli Notti di p. lx M. Giovan Francesco Straparola da Caravaggio. Venice, 1567. Notte Prima, Favola III. "Pre Scarpacifico da tre malandrini una sol volta gabbato, tre fiate gabba loro, finalmente vittorioso con la sua Nina lietamente rimane." In which tale the beginning is a parallel to the first part of "The Master Thief," while the end answers exactly to the Norse tale added in this edition, and called "Big Peter and Little Peter."

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reminds us at once of the story of Rhampsinitus in Herodotus; which are also to be found in German, Italian, and Flemish popular tales, but told in all with such variations of character and detail, and such adaptations to time and place, as evidently show the original working of the national consciousness upon a stock of tradition common to all the race, but belonging to no tribe of that race in particular; and when we find this occurring not in one tale but in twenty, we are forced to abandon the theory of such universal copying, for fear lest we should fall into a greater difficulty than that for which we were striving to account.

To set this question in a plainer light, let us take a well-known instance; let us take the story of William Tell and his daring shot, which is said to have been made in the year 1307. It is just possible that the feat might be historical, and, no doubt, thousands believe it for the sake of the Swiss patriot, as firmly as they believe in anything; but, unfortunately, this story of the bold archer who saves his life by shooting an apple from the head of his child at the command of a tyrant is common to the whole Aryan race. It appears in Saxo Grammaticus, who flourished in the twelfth century, where it is told of Palnatoki,

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King Harold Gormson's thane and assassin. In the thirteenth century the Wilkina Saga relates it of Egill, Völundr's--our Wayland Smith's--younger brother. So also in the Norse Saga of Saint Olof, king and martyr: the king, who died in 1030, eager for the conversion of one of his heathen chiefs Eindridi, competes with him in various athletic exercises, first in swimming and then in archery. After several famous shots on either side, the king challenges Eindridi to shoot a tablet off his son's head without hurting the child. Eindridi is ready, but declares he will revenge himself if the child is hurt. The king has the first shot, and his arrow strikes close to the tablet. Then Eindridi is to shoot, but at the prayers of his mother and sister, refuses the shot, and has to yield and be converted. 1 So, also, King Harold Sigurdarson, who died 1066, backed himself against a famous marksman, Hemingr, and ordered him to shoot a hazel-nut off the head of his brother Björn, and Hemingr performed the feat. 2 In the middle of the fourteenth century, the Malleus Maleficarum refers it to Puncher, a magician of the Upper Rhine. Here in England, we have it in the old English ballad of Adam Bell, Clym. of the Clough, and William of Cloudesly, where William performs the feat. 3 It is not told at all of Tell in Switzerland before the year 1499, and the earlier Swiss chronicles omit it altogether. It is common to the Turks and Mongolians; and a legend of the wild Samoyeds, who never heard of Tell

1. Forum. Sög., ii. 272.
2. Müller's Saga Bibl., iii. 359.
3. See the ballad in Percy's Reliques.

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or saw a book in their lives, relates it, chapter and verse, of one of their famous marksmen. What shall we say then, but that the story of this bold master-shot was primeval amongst many tribes and races, and that it only crystallised itself round the great name of Tell by that process of attraction which invariably leads a grateful people to throw such mythic wreaths, such garlands of bold deeds of precious memory, round the brow of its darling champion. 1

1. The following are translations from Saxo, the Wilkina Saga, and the Malleus Maleficarum. The question is completely set at rest by Grimm, D. M. p. 353 fol. and p. 1214.

"Nor is the following story to be wrapped in silence. A certain Palnatoki, for some time among King Harold's bodyguard, had made his bravery odious to very many of his fellow-soldiers by the zeal with which he surpassed them in the discharge of his duty. This man once, when talking, tipsily over his cups, had boasted that he was so skilled an archer, that he could hit the smallest apple placed a long way off on a wand at the first shot; which talk, caught up at first by the ears of backbiters, soon came to the hearing of the king. Now, mark how the wickedness of the king turned the confidence of the sire to the peril of the son, by commanding that this dearest pledge of his life should be placed instead of the wand, with a threat that, unless the author of this promise could strike off the apple at the first flight of the arrow, he should pay the penalty of his empty boasting by the loss of his head. The king's command forced the soldier to perform more than he had promised, and what he had said, reported by the tongues of slanderers, bound him to accomplish what he had not said." . . . . "Nor did his sterling p. lxiii courage, thought caught in the snare of slander, suffer him to lay aside his firmness of heart; nay, he accepted the trial the more readily because it was hard. So Palnatoki warned the boy urgently when he took his stand to await the coming of the hurtling arrow with calm ears and unbent head, lest by a slight turn of his body he should defeat the practised skill of the bowman; and, taking further counsel to prevent his fear, he turned away his face, lest he should be scared at the sight of the weapon. Then taking three arrows from the quiver, he struck the mark given him with the first he fitted to the string. But, if chance had brought the head of the boy before the shaft, no doubt the penalty of the son would have recoiled to the peril of the father, and the swerving of the shaft that struck the boy would have linked them both in common ruin. I am in doubt, then, whether to admire most the courage of the father or the temper of the son, of whom the one by skill in his art avoided being the slayer of his child, while the other by patience of mind and quietness of body saved himself alive, and spared the natural affection of his father. Nay, the youthful frame strengthened the aged heart, and showed as much courage in awaiting the arrow as the father skill in launching it. But Palnatoki, when asked by the king why he had taken more arrows from the quiver, when it had been settled that he should only try the fortune of the bow once, made answer, 'That I might avenge on thee the swerving of the first by the points of the rest, lest perchance my innocence might have been punished, while your p. lxiv violence escaped scot-free.'"-Saxo Gram., Book x. p. 166, ed. Frankf.

"About that time the young Egill, Wayland's brother, came to the court of King Nidung, because Wayland (Smith) had sent him word. Egill was the fairest of men, and one thing he had before all other men--he shot better with the bow than any other man. The king took to him well, and Egill was there a long time. Now, the king wished to try whether Egill shot so well as was said or not, so he let Egill's son, a boy of three years old, be taken, and made them put an apple on his head, and bade Egill shoot so that the shaft struck neither above the head nor to the left nor to the right; the apple only was he to split. But it was not forbidden him to shoot the boy, for the king thought it certain that he would do that on no account, if he could at all help it. And he was to shoot one arrow only, no more. So Egill takes three, and strokes their feathers smooth, and fits one to his string, and shoots and hits the apple in the middle, so that the arrow took along with it half the apple, and then fell to the ground. This master-shot has long been talked about, and the king made much of him, and he was the most famous of men. Now, King Nidung asked Egill why he took out three arrows, when it was settled that one only was to be shot with. Then Egill answered, 'Lord,'. said he, 'I will not lie to you; had p. lxv I stricken the lad with that one arrow, then I had meant these two for you.' But the king took that well from him, and all thought it was boldly spoken."--Wilkina Saga, ch. 27, ed. Pering.

"It is related of him [Puncher] that a certain lord, who wished to obtain a sure trial of his skill, set up his little son as a butt, and for a mark a shilling on the boy's cap, commanding him to carry off the shilling without the cap with his arrow. But when the wizard said he could do it, though he would rather abstain, lest the Devil should decoy him to destruction; still, being led on by the words of the chief, he thrust one arrow through his collar, and, fitting the other to his crossbow, struck off the coin from the boy's cap without doing him any harm; seeing which, when the lord asked the wizard why he had placed the arrow in his collar? he answered, 'If by the Devil's deceit I had slain the boy, when I needs must die, I would have transfixed you suddenly with the other arrow, that even so I might have avenged my death.'"--Malleus Malef., P. ii. ch. 16.

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Nor let any pious Welshman be shocked if we venture to assert that Gellert, that famous hound upon whose last resting place the traveller comes as he passes down the lovely vale of Gwynant, is a mythical dog, and never

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snuffed the fresh breeze in the forest of Snowdon, nor saved his master's child from ravening wolf. This, too, is a primeval story, told with many variations. Sometimes the foe is a wolf, sometimes a bear, sometimes a snake. Sometimes the faithful guardian of the child is an otter, a weasel, or a dog. It, too, came from the East. It is found in the Pantcha-Tantra, in the Hitopadesa, in Bidpai's

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Fables, in the Arabic original of the Seven Wise Masters,--that famous collection of stories which illustrate a stepdame's calumny and hate--and in many medieval versions of those originals. 1 Thence it passed into the Latin Gesta Romanorum, where, as well as in the Old English version published by Sir Frederick Madden, it may be read as a

1. See Pantcha-Tantra, v. ii. of Wilson's Analysis, quoted by Loiseleur Deslongchamps, Essai sur les Fables Indiennes, Paris (Techener), 1838, p. 54, where the animal that protects the child is a mangouste (Viverra Mungo). See also Hitopadesa, Max Müller's Translation, Leipzig (Brockhaus), p. 178, where the guardian is an otter. In both the foe is a snake.

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service rendered by a faithful hound against a snake. This, too, like Tell's master-shot, is as the lightning which shineth over the whole heaven at once, and can be claimed by no one tribe of the Aryan race, to the exclusion of the rest. "The Dog of Montargis" is in like manner mythic, though perhaps not so widely spread. It first occurs in France, as told of Sybilla, a fabulous wife of Charlemagne; but it is at any rate as old as the time of Plutarch, who relates it as an anecdote of brute sagacity in the days of Pyrrhus.

There can be no doubt, with regard to the question of the origin of these tales, that they were common in germ at least to the Aryan tribes before their migration. We find those germs developed in the popular traditions of the Eastern Aryans, and we find them developed in a hundred forms and shapes in every one of the nations into which the Western Aryans have shaped themselves in the course of ages. We are led, therefore, irresistibly to the conclusion, that these traditions are as much a portion of the common inheritance of our ancestors, as their language unquestionably is; and that they form, along with that language, a double chain of evidence, which proves their Eastern origin. If we are to seek for a simile, or an analogy, as to the relative positions of these tales and traditions, and to the mutual resemblances which exist between them as the several branches of our race have developed them from the common stock, we may find it in one which will come home to every reader as he looks round the domestic hearth, if he should be so happy as to have one. They are like as sisters of one house are like. They have what would be called a strong family likeness;

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but besides this likeness, which, they owe to father or mother, as the case may be, they have each their peculiarities of form and eye and face, and, still more, their differences of intellect and mind. This may be dark, that fair; this may have grey eyes, that black; this may be open and graceful, that reserved and close; this you may love, that you can take no interest in. One may be bashful, another winning, a third worth knowing, and yet hard to know. They are so like, and so unlike. At first it may be, as an old English writer beautifully expresses it, "their father hath writ them as his own little story," but as they grow up they throw off the copy, educate themselves for good or ill, and finally assume new forms of feeling and feature under an original development of their own.

Or shall we take another likeness, and say they are national dreams; that they are like the sleeping thoughts of many men upon one and the same thing, Suppose a hundred men to have been eye-witnesses of some event on the same day, and then to have slept and dreamt of it; we should have as many distinct representations of that event, all turning upon it and bound up with it in some way, but each preserving the personality of the sleeper, and working up the common stuff in a higher or lower degree, just as the fancy and the intellect of the sleeper was at a higher or lower level of perfection. There is, indeed, greater truth in this likeness than may at first sight appear. In the popular tale, properly so called, the national mind dreams all its history over again; in its half-conscious state it takes this trait and that trait, this feature and that feature, of times and ages long past. It

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snatches up bits of its old beliefs, and fears, and griefs, and glory, and pieces them together with something that happened yesterday, and then holds up the distorted reflection in all its inconsequence, just as it has passed before that magic glass, as though it were genuine history, and matter for pure belief. And here it may be as well to say, that besides that old classical foe of vernacular tradition, there is another hardly less dangerous, which returns to the charge of copying, but changes what lawyers call the venue of the trial from classical to Eastern lands. According to this theory, which came up when its classical predecessor was no longer tenable, the traditions and tales of Western Europe came from the East, but they were still all copies. They were supposed to have proceeded entirely from two sources: one the Directorium Humanæ Vitæ of John of Capua, translated between 1262-78 from a Hebrew version, which again came from an Arabic version of the eighth century, which came from a Pehlvi version made by one Barzouyeh, at the command of Chosrou Noushirvan, King of Persia, in the sixth century, which again came from the Pantcha-Tantra, a Sanscrit original of unknown antiquity. This is that famous book of Calila and Dimna, as the Persian version is called, attributed to Bidpai, and which was thus run to earth in India. The second source of Western tradition was held to be that still more famous collection of stories commonly known by the name of the "Story of the Seven Sages," but which, under many names--Kaiser Octavianus, Diocletianus, Dolopathos, Erastus, etc.--plays a most important part in medieval romance. This, too, by a similar process, has been traced to India, appearing first in

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Europe at the beginning of the thirteenth century in the Latin Historia Septem Sapientum Romæ, by Dame Jehans, monk in the Abbey of Haute Selve. Here, too, we have a Hebrew, an Arabic, and a Persian version; which last came avowedly from a Sanscrit original, though that original has not vet been discovered. From these two sources of fable and tradition, according to the new copying theory, our Western fables and tales had come by direct translation from the East. Now it will be at once evident that this theory hangs on what ma be called a single thread. Let us say, then, that all that can be found in Calila and Dimna, or the later Persian version, made A.D. 1494, of Hossein Vaez, called the Anvari Sohaili, "the Canopic Lights,"--from which, when published in Paris by David Sahid of Ispahan, in the year 1644, La Fontaine drew the substance of many of his best fables.--Let us say, too, that all can be found in the "Life of the Seven Sages," "or the Book of Sendabad," as it was called in Persia, after an apocryphal Indian sage--came by translation--that is to say, through the cells of Brahmins, magians, and monks, and the labours of the learned--into the popular literature of the West. Let us give up all that, and then see where we stand. What are we to say of the many tales and fables which are to be found in neither of those famous collections, and not tales alone, but traits and features of old tradition, broken bits of fable, roots and germs of mighty growths of song and story, nay, even the very words, which exist in Western popular literature, and which modern philology has found obstinately sticking in Sanscrit, and of which fresh proofs and instances are discovered every day? What

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